Fantastic Theological Anthropology: Milton, Gaiman, and the Anabaptists

"Others apart sat on a hill retired, / In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high / Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will and Fate-- / Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute-- / And found no end, in wandering mazes lost." – Milton,Paradise Lost,2: 557-561


Anyone who has attended a theological symposium finds the image of devils in Hell debating arcane points of theology unfortunately resonant. The two texts under consideration in this essay reflect – and in Milton's case, have shaped – Western conceptions of what humans are, how they think, love and create, and whether there is an ultimate purpose behind their very existence. Their questions and their answers each lie rooted in the time that created them: one almost 350 years ago and one within the past twenty years. Milton'sParadise Lostseems an ancient, quaint picture of an outmoded world controlled by white-bearded despots and defiant demons, while Neil Gaiman's anarchicThe Sandmanseries darts among the sacred narratives of human history, harvesting what it will without regard for sanctity or consistency. Where among these different conceptions of humanity and God – as Gaiman's series' epigraph above (and Scripture) suggests – is wisdom to be found?

Theology and narrative have intertwined from the beginning of human existence – the stories of creation around the campfires of the Australian aborigines, the thundering warriors of the Norse sagas, the subtle psychological manipulations of Homeric epic. Christianity is no different in this regard. Historically marginalized groups such as the radical groups of the Protestant Reformation more often communicated their theology through songs, poems, and letters than sophisticated rational arguments.[1] The task of the theologian is not dissimilar from that of the artist or poet – to take things that are unfathomable, large, and elusive, and attempt to portray them to their publics, to, as theologian John Milbank says, "redeem estrangement."[2] A closer examination of narrative/theological works such as Milton's and its heirs not only provides some answers about the nature of God and the universe, but also provides a window into our own understanding of our current human existence at its basic socioeconomic levels.[3] It behooves us to study theology and culture because they are more alike than either theologians or artists care to admit.

In that vein, this essay will explore the traditional theological theme of anthropology, the understanding of human beings and their relationship with the universe and with God, in Milton'sParadise Lost[4] and Neil Gaiman's seriesThe Sandman.[5] First, I will briefly outline Radical Reformation anthropology. The paper will then explore Milton's concept of anthropology within the context of the shift from premodern to modern understandings, particularly as exemplified in the humanist traditions of the Radical Reformation, as well as how Gaiman's series illustrates a "postmodern" understanding of narrative play and semiotic shift. My final argument concludes that Gaiman's method of contemporary appropriation of ancient texts can integrate Milton's Radical Reformation understanding of the nature of humanity into a "fantastic theological poetics" appropriate for a 21stcentury anthropology.

Anabaptist Anthropology: The New Creation Here and Now, Not Hereafter

The Anabaptist movement often traces its beginnings to Jan. 21, 1525, when a group of devoted laymen gathered in a small kitchen and baptized each other with well water and a soup ladle – an act so revolutionary in the face of the religious establishment that one man fled from the kitchen shaking with terror.[6] Often considered part of the "Radical Reformation," the Anabaptists believed in baptism of adult believers by confession of faith (hence their name, "re-baptizers"), biblical adherence guided by the Holy Spirit, which resulted in pacifism and withdrawal from government, and a community-focused nonhierarchical ecclesiology. The descendants of the Anabaptists include the Amish, who withdraw from society's technological drivenness; the Hutterites, who practice communal sharing of goods in large multi-family farms; and the Mennonites, who evolved into a more traditional Protestant denominational structure while retaining their unique theological beliefs. A closer examination of Anabaptist anthropology reveals its particular differences both from the Roman Catholic establishment and the more well-known Protestant reformers, as well as providing an intriguing segue into Milton's theology inParadise Lostitself.

The Anabaptists found their theology proper – that is, their understanding of God – and their Christology virtually inseparable. Anabaptist exegesis insisted on starting with the person and work of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels and extrapolating from there, not with a philosophical or doctrinal position as a basis for examining the Gospels. Anabaptists had a particular emphasis on Christ's teaching for conduct in daily living rather than on the implications of Christ's person in abstract doctrine. For example, Leonard Scheimer wrote in his "Letter to the Church at Rattenburg" in 1527,

If one asks a heathen how a Christian ought to live his answer is: our lords have forbidden it. But when I ask: who are your lords that forbid you to believe they answer: this or that sovereign. Christians obey the sovereigns of this world with body and good. But they are obedient to the Sovereign of heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ with the soul and everything that pertains and belongs to faith.[7]

In other words, God's intention for human living was revealed not in a body of Church doctrine but in the person of Jesus as revealed in the New Testament, with implications for daily life contrary to the ordinary expectations of political institutions. Anabaptists focused their Christology as a combination of the pre-existing Word and the "new Adam" whose obedience to God paved the way for a new mode of human existence, not only in the hereafter but in the here and now.[8] Jesus' example while on earth provides a model for human behavior.[9] To know what God is like is to examine Jesus' narrative in the Gospels and mold oneself into Christ's likeness in one's own life.

As one might expect, with high expectations of behavior came a severe anthropology. Anabaptists rejected notions of predestination as well as Catholic sacramentalism, insisting that true Christianity consisted in the conscious choice to accept Christ's teachings and the determination to follow his commandments – or to avoid them and suffer the consequences. Balthasar Hubmaier, one of the few Anabaptists who lived long enough to do sustained theological writing, said bluntly, "Whoever denies the free will of man and says that 'free will' is nothing but an empty and useless term without any reality, the same slanders God as a tyrant."[10] Hubmaier's theology suggested that God's law convinces humans that we cannot help ourselves, but that Jesus leads us to repentance and the free choice of a renewed Christian life.[11] Pilgram Marpeck, a more 'moderate' Anabaptist theologian, suggested that all humans have a natural piety that led them to desire good behavior, which was expressed in various degrees but only fully through the Holy Spirit.[12] Human beings have an innate spiritual tendency which leads them toward or away from Christlike ethical behavior and the ultimate free decision to accept or reject God's grace and a renewed individual and social mode of human being.

The Christian then is a new human being, renewed by grace and living a Christlike life in the midst of a new Christian community unlike anything in the world. For Thomas Finger, the implications of early Anabaptist Christology imply the possibility of a renewed human freedom characterized by transcendence of the individual self into relation with and service toward others.[13] The new creation rejects the dehumanizing trends of multinational capitalism in favor of a non-hierarchical relational mutuality.[14] Mennonite theologian of culture Duane Friesen suggests that the church can act as an alternative societal structure which models a Christlike way of human living in the midst of the structures of society.[15] Finger summarizes succinctly:

Given the "world's" opposition, I would expect the church to affect the public realm not so much by furthering ongoing trends or institutions as by making alternative forms of social life visible. For the powers spread a kind of systemic blindness over society. Their influence also permeates society with inequality, dishonesty, injustice and an ontology of violence. Since people constantly experience such things, they assume that reality necessarily operates like this. They will suppose that other ways are not really possible—unless they see these lived out. The church's main social task, then, is to embody alternative approaches to race relations, violent conflict, poverty and other issues—as an eschatological sacrament. Through these, societies become aware of new, transformative possibilities.[16]

The new creation, then, is not only the shining New Jerusalem of a time beyond history (although the Anabaptists looked forward to that too, particularly when Catholic and Lutheran governments would stop burning them at the stake), but a tangible and visible New Jerusalem, which lives in simplicity, community, peace, and justice.

A five-page excursus on a marginal movement of the early Reformation may seem superfluous to an examination of Milton's theology. However, upon the publication of Milton'sDe Doctrina Christiana(DDC) in 1825, he was immediately condemned as anti-Athanasian, anti-Sabbatarian, a defender of polygamy—and an Anabaptist.[17] Some quotes from the DDC illustrate Milton's sympathy with basic Anabaptist tenets: believers' baptism: "Baptism should be performed in running water, and infants should not be baptized, for they are incompetent to enter into the covenant"[18]; anti-hierarchical leadership: "Any believer endowed with the necessary gifts is competent to act as an ordinary minister. The people of the church comprise all nations"[19]; the priority of Spirit over letter and the freedom of religious worship: "Of the two religious guides, the written word and the Spirit, the latter is the more reliable, for the text of the Bible may become corrupt, while the Spirit is incorruptible. Since each man has divine guidance, civil power should not enforce religious conformity. If professed believers disagree in their interpretations, they should tolerate each other's belief until God reveals the truth to all"[20]; and ethical behavior as the result of Christian belief: "True worship consists chiefly in the exercise of good works—those which we perform by the Spirit of God working in us through true faith, to the glory of God, to the assured hope of our salvation, and to the edification of our neighbor."[21] The early Radical Reformers, like their followers and like Milton, saw human beings as creatures with free will and reason that nonetheless were prone to individual pride, violent behavior, and hierarchical oppression. Only through the grace of God and the example of Christ could humans be saved to establish the new creation of an alternative society. It is against this theological backdrop of human behavior that Milton conceivedParadise Lost.

"Deeds to Thy Knowledge Answerable": The Anthropology ofParadise Lost

An exploration of the intersections of the DDC and PL using the lens of theological anthropology both renders a clearer picture of Milton's picture of the man to whom he sought to justify the ways of God, and exemplifies how a carefully thought-out reasoned theological structure can both inform and be informed by a creative poetics to the benefit of both. Milton wrote the DDC after a prolonged personal exploration of Scripture along its breadth and length. One of the primary convictions that Milton comes to, the scholars generally agree, is that God is essentially unknowable and beyond human understanding – a tenet also reflected in Anabaptist theology, which focuses instead on Christology.[22] Milton insists that our attempts to know God are limited by God's intrinsic hiddenness, inaccessible by human reason, imagination or understanding.[23] One of Milton's favorite Scripture verses was 1 Timothy 6:16: "It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion." Milton's God is the God of the Hebrew Bible, a God with passion, rage, love, and regret, yet far beyond any human conception, and certainly beyond human might.

The God ofParadise Lostacts in much the same way as the God of the DDC. The angel Abdiel rebukes Satan when confronting him in the Garden of Eden: "Shalt thou give law to God? shalt thou dispute / With him the points of liberty who made / Thee what thou art, and formed the Powers of Heaven / Such as he pleased, and circumscribed their being? / Yet, by experience taught, we know how good, / And of our good and of our dignity / How provident he is" (5:822-828) Yet, as Abdiel suggests, God is not the remote deity of Greek philosophy or an Enlightenment prime cause, but a person intimately involved with both human beings and the creation. When Adam asks, "In yonder nether world where shall I seek/ His bright appearances or footsteps trace?" (11:328-9), Michael answers, "Yet doubt not but in valley and in plain/ God is as here, and will be found alike/ Present, and of his presence many a sign/ Still following thee, still compassing thee round/ With goodness and paternal love, his face/ Express, and of his steps the track divine." (11:349-54)

Unfortunately, Milton's Christ lacks the warmth and personality that one might have expected for someone who believed that following Christ's path was the expression of ultimate worship.[24] Milton's Christ is more the eternal Pantocrator who crushes the enemy under his foot rather than the itinerant folk healer of the gospels – perhaps a result of Milton's attempt to render a Christian hero in epic form. Christ promises God that "The World shall burn" (3:334) and rides the flaming chariot-wheels into deadly battle (3:390ff), a common misreading of the book of Revelation that proves more exciting than a pacifist revolutionary. Milton here pays too much attention to theological reasoning and too little to narrative, supporting critics' arguments that PL proceeds more by argument than by poetic example.

Contrasted to the two-dimensional icon of Christ in PL is the robust and complex figure of Satan, beloved of the Romantic poets and modern critics alike.[25] William Grace sees Satan as an inverted paradigm of proper human behavior, the dangerous Enlightenment individualist subject who relies solely on their own flawed will and reason.[26] Satan constantly relies on his own strength of will (1: 105-109, 139-142) and sees any attempt to curtail his personal freedom not as the necessary bond of community but as hateful tyranny, a Jungian shadow-projection on a superhuman scale (1:122, 247ff). However, the results of Satan's self-sufficiency and pride are revealed later in the poem as he sinks deeper into despair, remorse, and hopelessness (4: 75-83, 107-110; 9: 118ff). By insisting that only by reason and individual will can he truly exist, Satan dooms himself to a life bereft of positive emotion and true empathic connection.

In this sense, then, Milton's anthropology is partially a negative one: Satan illustrates the mode of being that is most harmful to humans, which may be why modern individualists find his character so attractive. For Milton, however, pride in one's own power and self-sufficiency are equal to sin, the mode of human being which brings misery (1:214-220), the key to Hell, "the fatal key, / Sad instrument of all our woe" (2:850, 871). As cited before, for Milton, humans have free will, but this will exercised on its own behalf can lead to despair as well as grace[27] (3:100ff, 173-175). As did the Anabaptists, Milton rejected God's 'tyrannical' control of human will in favor of human cooperation in God's saving grace.[28] In fact, Reason and Fancy are part of humanity's image of God[29], a reason and will shared with the angels and with God himself (5:100ff, 486-90). Though it may prove dangerous when used in excess (7:126-30; 9:350-356), reason is the highest achievement of human being (8:586-91). For Milton, then, human beings are capable of their own free choice in determining their own behavior, guided by a reason given by God but all too prone to exalting itself into Satanic delusion.

For Milton, then, the New Creation is a total human being redeemed by Christ into an unfallen state. Critics have often noted Milton's "theology of embodiment," a positive sexuality present even in the Garden of Eden (e.g. 4:310ff, 507, 741ff). Grace reads Milton as promulgating the "Fortunate Fall," Adam and Eve's move from almost moronic simplicity through into a mature and more complicated relational understanding.[30] Jeffrey Shoulson argues that Milton avoids "a rigid distinction between the body and the spirit that many of his contemporaries avidly asserted. Anticipating what will become a far more explicit monism in the divorce tracts and the later poetry, Milton alters the nature of the body rather than fully dispensing with it."[31] Like the Anabaptists, Milton equates existing human institutions with humans' dangerous self-deceptive and violent pride[32], looking toward Christ to instigate a new kingdom founded on righteousness, peace, and love (12: 548-551). This kingdom is not only in the far future, as Michael reminds Adam, but also a kingdom in the present founded on Christian ethical virtues[33] (12:581-587). From the Christian/Anabaptist/Miltonic kingdom of humility, relationality, charity and peace, we now turn to a more contemporary understanding of the human condition.

Daring to Dream:The Sandmanand the Anthropology of Textual Play

Perhaps because of a "postmodern" reluctance to shy away from metaphysics or grand narrative, very little academic work has been done on the overall cosmology or philosophical system of Gaiman's series. For example, the published anthology of scholarly worksThe Sandman Papers,[34] although subtitledAn Exploration of the Sandman Mythology, focuses primarily on Gaiman's extratextual references or on particular ideological critiques. While interesting in their own academic right, I would argue that tracing Borges' or Shakespeare's influence on Gaiman, or exploring his conceptions of gender roles or Orientalism, does not equate to exploring the mythology – that is, to describing the overarching conceptions of humanity, patterns of behavior, questions of identity and meaning, etc. In an explicitly mythological series such as Gaiman's, this oversight indicates a curious squeamishness about "Meaning" itself.

One could argue that this reticence about meaning is, in fact, an inherent part of Gaiman's cosmology. God does make his way intoThe Sandmanseries, but only as an indirect figure never explicitly referred to by name, an echo of Lacan's absence at the heart of human signification.[35] In Volume 4 ofThe Sandman,"Season of Mists," Gaiman instead focuses on Satan's increasing anthropomorphization, his rejection of an archetypal construct of evil. Lucifer expounds his frustration with his outmoded theologically trapped existence to the Sandman's protagonist, the personification of dreaming:

Ten billion years spent providing a place for dead mortals to torture themselves. And like all masochists they called the shots – "burn me" – "freeze me" – "eat me" – "hurt me" – and we did. But I grew weary, dream lord. Mightily weary. I ceased to care. Why do they blame me for all their little failings? They use my name as if I spend my entire day sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commit acts they would otherwise find repulsive. "The devil made me do it." I have never made one of them do anything. Never. They live their own tiny lives. I do not live their lives for them. They belong to themselves…they just hate to face up to it. (3:80-82)

Lucifer then turns the key over to Morpheus to do with it as he wishes. In response to (an unarticulated) command from 'The Creator,' two angels are instructed to take over Hell directly, and Dream gladly relinquishes the keys. As Morpheus explains to the other representatives of various pantheons, "I did not create the Hell of Lucifer, nor the realm of which it is a shadow. If its creator wishes to take it back, that is its creator's affair, not mine." (3:181) The two angels watch the demons and damned souls slowly return to Hell. Duma, angel of silence, muses, "Perhaps it's a blessing. Perhaps it's an opportunity to do good." The angels fly to where a huge demon is whipping a soul chained to a rock. Duma stops the demon and proclaims, "That was the old Hell. That was a place of mindless torture and purposeless pain. We will hurt you. And we are not sorry. But we do not do it to punish you. We do it to redeem you. Because afterward, you will be a better person. And because we love you. One day, you'll thank us for it." As the angels fly away, the soul whimpers, "But you don't understand. That makes it worse. That makes it so much worse…" (4:215-217).

This combination of an absent Creator bent on eternal punishment "for your own good" and a Satan weary of his role as the black-hatted villain in a preordained cosmic Western may seem to confirm both the Romantic view of Milton's attractive Satan and Pullman's biting criticism of Christian cosmology. However, like the early Anabaptists and like Milton, Gaiman focuses more on the ethical implications of moral behavior and less on the person of an abstract philosophical concept that happens to be named God. Gaiman's Christology, while not explicit, is strongly implied in his story of "The Golden Boy" in vol. 8 ofThe Sandman, "World's End." Gaiman presents an alternate Christology where Prez Rickards rejects the temptations of Mr. Smiley (the story's Satan figure) and serves an honest and successful two-term presidency. He averts the energy crisis, reduces the federal deficit and the national debt, scraps all the US's nuclear weapons, and cracks down on industrial pollution. The rumors of his death are widespread and inconclusive, but legend has it that he will return to the Presidency not just on his own world, but in all worlds, a reminder of our human desire for equity and justice both in our present world and in a perfect world to come.

This story about the moral implications of human beings living out their ethical imperatives for the good of creation and human relationality reveals the intersection of Gaiman's implicit Christology and explicit anthropology. For Gaiman, humans are controlled by forces beyond their individual power, exemplified by the gods and by the Endless. However, humans still have the free choice to accept their own decisions and create their own narratives. In response to their individual choices, human beings can shape the destiny of the very forces that seem to control them – for good or for ill. The superhero Metamorpha, changed by the Egyptian god Ra into an inhuman elemental shape-changer as a tool in a nonsensical metaphysical war, chooses to end her own life, which has been cut off from any sense of community or human embodiment (3:110). In "August," Augustus Caesar willfully subverts the fate of the entire Roman Empire in response to his uncle Julius's callous abuse (6:122). Pre-operative transsexual Wanda rejects the gods' biological determinism in favor of her own understanding of who she is (5:113). Even Morpheus, in his riddle-battle in Hell with the demon who stole his magical helmet, shows his slow transformation into a human looking toward the possibility of creative change, when his adversary proclaims himself "anti-life, the beast of judgment. I am the dark at the end of everything, the end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything." Morpheus simply responds, "I am hope," and the challenge is ended (1:125).

For Gaiman, ultimate human being is found not in the solipsistic Enlightenment thinker but in the creative power of relation and the ability to think what the possibilities of human existence might be rather than what they are. The short story "Thermidor" reminds us of one of the most brutal explications of Enlightenment rationalism, the French Revolution. Terrorist demagogue Robespierre remarks, "We are remaking the world, woman; we are creating an age of pure reason. We have taken the names of dead gods and kings from the days of the week and the months of the year. We have lost the saints and burned the churches. I myself have inaugurated a new religion, based on reason, celebrating an egalitarian supreme being, distant and unmoved." (6:60) Only the singing head of Orpheus, Morpheus' son, ends the coldly calculating reign of bloodshed. The embodiment of Destruction abandons his post precisely at the beginning of the Enlightenment when he realizes the path that supposed human self-sufficiency is taking:

They are using reason as a tool. Reason. It is no more reliable a tool than instinct, myth or dream. But it has the potential to be far more dangerous, for them…. Mr. Newton has already posed the question, "Are not light and gross bodies incontrovertible?" Although at present it is but an idle notion and I doubt he will return to it. Alas, they are incontrovertible. And from that follows the flames...the big bangs. The loud explosions. Then follows my time, brother. The age of fire and flame…. (20-22)

With the absence of a relational responsibility and the subjugation of a total embodiment to a Kantian dualism of mind over matter, human hubris will self-destruct in the annihilation of the atomic bomb.

The new possibility for human being, Gaiman's New Creation, is not more thinking but more being, a reintegration of old ways and old stories in a fresh mode of human existence. Dreams for Gaiman are not chimeras to be disposed of upon awakening but a mode of acting and thinking outside the Enlightenment box. The madman who at one point controls the Sandman's amulet says, "People think dreams aren't real because they aren't made of matter, of particles. Dreamsarereal. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes…" (1:148). In Gaiman's wonderful fable "A Dream of a Thousand Cats," about how cats used to rule the earth, a human prophet convinces other humans to dream things differently, saying, "I do not know how many of us it will take. But we must dream it, and if enough of us dream it, it will happen. Dreams shape the world" (3:53). As the prophet enters Morpheus' realm, she meets the raven who is Dream's messenger. She tells him, "I come here for justice; I have come here for revelation; I have come here for wisdom." The raven replies, "Justice is a delusion you will not find on this or any other sphere. Wisdom is no part of dreams, though dreams are a part of the sum of each life's experiences, which is the only wisdom that matters. But revelation?Thatis the province of dream" (3:47). Now the cat prophet roams the earth exhorting her fellow cats to dream things right again – a call for the power of an alternative community thinking in new ways to recreate Being itself.

Conclusion: Fantastic Anthropology and the New Creation

Milton may have placed himself at the dawning of the age of Reason – and implied that he was one of its foremost champions – but both his explicit and implicit theology argue for a conception of the human being as working not as an individual mechanical brain trapped in a decaying body of meat, but as a holistic being working in community for the good of all creation. In Jean-Francoise Lyotard's era of the distrust of metanarrative, the story of all human beings created in God's image may seem like a dangerous ploy to subvert minority persons under majority power.[36] Indeed, as Michel Foucault andPhilip Pullman both point out, that has sadly too often been the case.[37] But the Christian narrative itself does not rule out the possibility of people behaving badly – it is in fact an intrinsic part of that narrative, a part called "sin." The Christian story recognizes, as Milton and Gaiman do, that even people's best intentions and meticulous reason fail to consider everything, and often go spectacularly wrong. Luckily, in the Christian narrative, the possibility of being outside the world that seems to shape us inevitably and without our choice still resides, an alternate reality that can break into the predestination of our lives and give us new hope both now and in the future.

This longing for what might be instead of what seems to be lies at the very heart of both the attraction and the power of fantastic literature. Fantasy paradoxically prepares us for the subtleties and gray shades of life while holding out the possibility of a brightly colored otherness. As critic Jill Paton Walsh comments, "A work of fantasy compels a reader into a metaphorical state of mind. A work of realism, on the other hand, permits very literal-minded readings … Even worse, it is possible to read a realistic book as thought it were not fiction at all."[38] Fantasy writer Ursula le Guin comments beautifully, "It is by such statements as 'Once upon a time there was a dragon' or 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' – it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth." As Aristotle told us thousands of years ago, by imagining a world where things might be better, more whole, more equitable than our own, we can return to our own world determined to recreate in the image of the fantasy that we have seen.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that Aristotle'sPoeticsreminds us of the power of the alternate world to touch our own. To write a fantasy, to dream of what seems not to be, is to create the world in line with that fantasy. For theologians, the poetic task is to tell the old Christian story in a fresh way that continues to remind the world of the necessity of embodied relationality in a world of fragmented individualistic cyber-bodies with no story to call their own. There is something in the slipperiness of words, the sliding of signification, that can strangely construe the truth of existence in a way that supposed scientific precision cannot. Milton, even in his systematic theology, recounts the story of God's action throughout history and so transcends theology's attempts to mathematize scientism in favor of the word-picture of New Creation.

Anabaptist theologian Scott Holland has called for a 'theopoetics,' a new way of doing theology that accepts the postmodern critique of Enlightenment language and highlights the embodied nature of human existence.[39] Theology has too often silenced alternative thinking in favor of institutional theorizing that did little more than reinforce the dominant status quo – and fantastic thinking was clearly recognized as one of the most threatening new ways of thinking.[40] As Finger points out, the task of the Christian theologian is to maintain the overarching narrative of creation, embodiment, sin and ultimate redemption, while still recasting it to appeal to the fragmented human condition in every varied age.[41] The early Anabaptists, Milton, Pullman, and Gaiman, all in their own ways and with varying degrees of success, rejected determinism in all its forms, whether theological, literary, institutional, or present-day socioeconomic. The task of a present-day fantastic poetic anthropology is to assess the human condition realistically, to remind us of it literarily and metaphorically, and to grant us the vision of a New Creation of human being through the power of its words and art. The new freedom of human beings through Christ means a new freedom of art, of theology, and of human existence.[42] The old Christian anthropology saw individual human beings irrevocably tainted by the stain of the flesh, doomed by forces beyond their control to a potential fate of unearned destruction. The new anthropology sees the same tendency of humanity limited by its individualist rationalist hubris, but with the possibility of a renewed conception of human existence constituted by relationality, mutuality, embodiment, justice, and love. For that new anthropology, we must thank Scripture, Milton, Pullman and Gaiman, and all the fantastic anthropologists yet to come.

[1] Thomas N. Finger,A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 9.

[2] Michael Lieb,Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon(Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 2006), 3.

[3] So Stanley Fish: "The justification for studying Milton in popular culture is not the light thrown on Milton but the light thrown on the workings of popular culture…. The glorious thing about popular culture is that it has no rules (at least not rules of interpretive fidelity), and that is why it is not a form of interpretation and also why it cannot be to the point to say of a canonical work taken up by popular culture that it has been distorted." InMilton in Popular Culture, ed. by Laura Lunger Knoppers and Gregory M. Colón Semenza (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 241.

[4] John Milton,Paradise Lost: and other poems, intro. and notes by Edward Le Comte (NY: Mentor/Penguin, 1981). Internal citations will use PL followed by the book and line numbers.

[5] Neil Gaiman et al,The Sandman Library.(DC Comics, various). Citations will use volume and page numbers.

[6] C. Arnold Snyder,Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction(Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1995), 54.

[7]Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, ed. by William Klassen, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 3 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 26.

[8] Peter Riedemann, 1542: "This Word proceeded from the Father that the harm brought by the transgression of Adam might be healed, and the fall restored; he took upon himself human nature and character, became man, became flesh, that even as through a man death came, even so resurrection from the dead and salvation might come through a man." Klassen, 29.

[9] Pilgram Marpeck, "Concerning the Love of God in Christ," 1547: "With gentle patience, love, and truth he overcame evil with all goodness, love, faithfulness, truth, and mercy, and [for evil] returned passionate intercession for his enemies, and surrendered his human life and eternal bliss on the cross in unbroken patience, a submissive and silent Lamb of sacrifice for the sins of man and his salvation." Klassen, 96. Also Conrad Grebel, "Letter to Müntzer," 1524: "The gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves…True Christian believers are sheep among the wolves, sheep for the slaughter…Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them." Klassen, 267.

[10] Klassen, 44.

[11] Finger, 259. Finger also spells out Marpeck's anthropology more explicitly: "The person was composed of three substances. At humankind's fall, the body or flesh had turned wholly away from God; it was irredeemable in this life, which necessitated rigor in discipline. The soul had turned toward the flesh and became entirely incapable of knowing or choosing good. The spirit, however, still turned wholly toward God. Lodged in the spirit the desire to do right still existed in everyone, Jews and heathen included. Nonetheless, the spirit was so captive to soul and flesh that it could only cry out to God like a prisoner, with unspeakable groaning." Ibid.

[12] Finger, 265.

[13] "A fuller anthropology would add, with [Karl] Barth, that humans are not onlydependent on God, and therefore called tofaithfulness, but also are intrinsicallycohumanand called tomutual servanthood; they are natural creatures called tostewardship of creation." Finger, 509.

[14] "Today's quests for freedom take at least two forms. One is for unlimited, autonomous modern freedom, motivated largely by pride. It operates most vigorously through globalizing forces that seek maximum control over raw materials, production, markets—and therefore people—without environmental, political or moral restraints. In response, Anabaptist anthropology should insist, with the Reformed, that human freedom always operates within limitations. Yet not all limits are obstacles. For freedom is inherently relational. It develops through interactions among individuals, groups, institutions and other creatures. Freedom is intrinsically cooperative, involving give-and-take. Paradoxically, it is fullest when it facilitates loving mutuality, which always curbs desires for autonomy. Human freedom is most limited—and energized—by God. But freedom's ultimate actuality and source is no autonomous modern individual but a loving, perichoretic interactivity of giving and receiving." Ibid.

[15] Friesen, Duane.Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City, an Anabaptist Theology of Culture.Fwd. by Glen Stassen. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Pr, 2000).

[16] Finger, 321.

[17] Maurice Kelley,This Great Argument: A Study of Milton'sDe Doctrina Christianaas a Gloss uponParadise Lost (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1962), 3.

[18] Kelley, 173.

[19] Kelley, 178.

[20] Kelley, 179.

[21] Kelley, 185.

[22] E.g. Lieb, 16: "Whether one considers the God of the poetry or the God of Milton's prose, one is left with a turbulence of mind that refuses to rest content in the knowledge that now at last one is able to understand fully Milton's God, to know what constitutes this figure of ultimacy, and to explain the nature of God's ways…. IfDe Doctrina Christianapurports to 'explain' God, to 'systematize' God, to 'theologize' God, it also refuses at all points the luxury of 'knowing,' of penetrating to the heart of the mystery that underlies thedeus absconditusat the center of its discourse. What results is adeus absconditusthat arises as much because of the uncertainties that surround the text qua text as it does because of the nature of the discourse in which the God of its theology is framed."

[23] "Milton, in spite of the ambition of his greatest project (Paradise Lost), indicates an awareness of the possible limitations of human knowledge. 'When we speak of knowing God,' he says, 'it must be understood with reference to the imperfect comprehension of man, for to know God as he really is far transcends the powers of man's thoughts, much more of perception. God therefore has made as full a revelation of himself as our minds can conceive or the weakness of our nature can bear.'" William J. Grace,Ideas in Milton(Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame Pr, 1968), 34.

[24] "The vast majority of Christians, Trinitarians or not, approach the idea of God through the image of Christ. Milton lacks any immediately personal note, and the kind of glory that God the Father bestows on the Son does a great deal of violence to our mental association with the Christ of the gospels. The Christ of the gospels is distinguished by a personality that has plumbed the depth of human tragedy and yet remains human in the warmest and most inclusive terms." Grace, 96.

[25] "To the extent that Milton is bequeathed to popular culture through a Romantic lens, that lens is largely an appropriation of Blakean reversals, such as those inThe Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Here Satan is a figure of energy who opposes all repression—sexual, religious, political, and philosophical." Knoppers & Semenza, 7.

[26] "The ultimate cause is knowledge and the ultimate knowledge is the knowledge of God. In this drama we have two competing theories of knowledge. Satan is the great empiric, the advocate of knowledge for power, knowledge derived externally from the impressions on sense, and worked up into patterns of practical reason reflecting human experience in the world, and among men. Christ's theory is the Platonic one of pure thought inaccessible to the senses, with judgment more important than perception." Grace, 33.

[27] From DDC: "There can be no doubt that for the purpose of vindicating the justice of God, especially in his calling of mankind, it is much better to allow to man (whether as a remnant of his primitive state, or as restored through the operation of grace whereby he is called) some portion of free will in respect of good works, or at least of good endeavors….For if our personal religion were not in some degree dependent on ourselves, and in our own power, God could not properly enter into a covenant with us; neither could we perform, much less swear to perform, the conditions of that covenant." Grace, 7.

[28] "Between the synergistic doctrine ofParadise Lostand the divine determinism of theWestminster Confessionexist essential differences: in the epic, election and reprobation both depend on man's cooperation; in Calvinism, God alone determines these matters, and man is powerless to cooperate in the salvation of his own soul.Paradise Lostdoes accord with the Arminianism of theDe doctrina, which argues that God elects men to everlasting life on the condition of faith and repentance, and rejects only those who in the end refuse to believe and repent." Kelley, 16.

[29] "Though Milton rejects the exclusive Calvinist emphasis on grace, he does not observe as closely as his medieval predecessors the distinction between the order of reason and the order of grace…. In common with Protestant tradition, he has an unrestricted optimism about knowledge as Late Augustinian illumination, about knowledge as a correlative of piety—infused knowledge from the Holy Spirit." Grace, 7-8.

[30] Grace, 77-78.

[31] Jeffrey S. Shoulson,Milton and the Rabbis: Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity.(NY: Columbia U Pr, 2001), 46.

[32] Milton had a special aversion to the post-Constantinian church, as did the Anabaptists: "Milton's idealistic apostolic Church has more in common with [the early Church's] politically disempowered version of Judaism than with the spectacularly successful post-Constantine Church." Shoulson, 54. See also Grace, 27.

[33] "Milton's Arminianism makes the human action of his poem possible. The continual renewal of mankind after the Fall means that fallen moral experience is not utterly different from Adam and Eve's. Fallen humanity may have it harder, but it is to regain Paradise on terms of free obedience, the terms on which Adam and Eve were to have kept it. It is renewed to stand or fall. So, in imagining life in Paradise, Milton was able to represent not an alien existence but what he took to be the essence of human experience." Reid, David.The Humanism of Milton's Paradise Lost.(Edinburgh University Press, 1993), 113.

[34]The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology. Ed. by Joe Sanders (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2006).

[35] E.g., "Presentation of the Suite" in Jacques Lacan,Écrits, trans. by Bruce Fink (NY: Norton, 2006), 30ff.

[36] Lyotard, Jean-François.The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.Trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Fwd. by Fredric Jameson. U of MN, 1984.

[37] Foucault, Michel.The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. Trans. by Robert Hurley. NY: Vintage Books, 1990. Pullman, Philip.The Golden Compass. His Dark Materials: Vol. 1.With an introduction by Terry Brooks. NY: Del Rey/Ballantine, 1995. ---.The Subtle Knife. His Dark Materials: Vol. 2.NY: Knopf, 1997. ---.The Amber Spyglass. His Dark Materials: Vol. 3.NY: Knopf, 2000.

[38] Peter Hunt and Millicent Lenz.Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction. Contemporary Classics of Children's Literature(NY: Continuum, 2001), p. 8.

[39] Scott Holland, "Theology is a Kind of Writing: The Emergence of Theopoetics,"Cross Currents47:3 (Fall 1997), 317-331.

[40] "Fantasy's role as a way (personally and collectively) of combating or coping with deprivation and repression, as well as desire, is clear in the folk tale, and, not surprisingly, such narratives were either absorbed into or silenced by society – notably through the puritan-evangelical religious hegemony of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and by the pervading utilitarian attitude of mind in the nineteenth century." Hunt, 15.

[41] "Since theology is always pursued within a cultural context, this context provides guidance and standards of a sort. Since theology must make sense to people, a context's language, thought and life forms provide standards of intelligibility…In face of a culture's 'texts' (cf. Holland), that is, theology cannot simple repeat past expressions of its kerygma but must be intelligible and relevant to that culture. If it is not, theology obscures the kerygma's present and future vitality….Yet some thought and life forms in any context conflict with the kerygma. The context cannot, therefore, provide norms to determine the truth of theological affirmations. Only Scripture provides theology's overall norm (read intracanonically, centering on the narrative climaxing in Jesus). This, however, does not equal constructing new meanings determined by contemporary thought and life forms (cf. [Gordon] Kaufman), for the meanings theology seeks to express stretch from the past through the present into the future." Finger, 101.

[42] "One way to give theological value to ambiguity is to believe that what God freely gave (and continues to give) creation is the possibility to act freely rather than a world already ordered….If God's action is characterized by freedom and love (and the same may be said of Jesus Christ), then the freedom given to reflective humanity carries with it the responsibility of using that freedom with love, even within and among the ambiguities of the world." Ruth Page, "Ambiguity," inNew and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology,eds. Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 29.

About the Author

Jeremy Garber

Jeremy Garber is a graduate of the Ph.D. Religious Studies program in Theology, Philosophy, and Cultural Theory at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology. Jeremy received his M.Div. from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana, concentrating in theology and ethics. Dr. Garber’s dissertation was titled “‘Another Way’: The Pneumatology of Deleuzean Minoritarian Communal Interpretation in Scripture, the 16th Century Radical Reformation, and Alternative 21st century Anabaptist Community.” His primary research is on the idea of the Holy Spirit and the interpretation of popular culture in religious communities, using media theory and Deleuzean philosophy. Dr. Garber has published articles on the perception of Anabaptism in contemporary literature, the authority of Scripture in young adults, and theology in popular culture. He has also taught courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels in constructive theology, philosophy of religion, religion and popular culture, ethics, and comparative religion. He and his daughter, Fiona, are members of First Mennonite Church in Denver.